THE Baltic republics have buried the hatchet to fight off potential economic and military attacks by Moscow. Since the spring, the common objective of the Baltic republics - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia - has been to regain the independence lost after Soviet occupation in 1940. But the Lithuanians' hard-nosed approach on more than one occasion has rankled the Latvians and Estonians.
The republics moved to coordinate their positions Saturday, presenting a delicately forged united front following the first-ever joint session of their three parliaments.
``The struggle for independence ... has moved to a new, more difficult but perhaps more decisive stage,'' said Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis.
The three republics agreed to establish an inter-parliamentary working group and to take a unified position on the presence of Soviet troops in the Baltics, calling for a negotiated withdrawal.
The principle reason for the consolidation is the position taken by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who is trying to keep the nation's 15 republics together under a new union treaty. Baltic leaders repeated during the joint session that they won't sign the new treaty.
In an effort to bring them into line, the central government had threatened the Baltics with a potentially devastating economic blockade. Moscow also has reacted angrily to a Latvian law passed Nov. 14, which denies housing permits to Soviet officers and their families and cuts provisions to military bases. Mr. Gorbachev issued a decree that bans the republics from adopting laws concerning the military. Defense Minister Dimitri Yazov took steps to ensure the free flow of essential supplies to bases.
``Our strength to resist political and economic pressure depends on our unity,'' said Estonian President Arnold Ruutel after the joint session.
Coming up with the resolution on the withdrawal of the Army was evidence of how much the Baltic republics were willing to put past differences aside to collectively confront Moscow.
The original wording of the document, drafted by the Lithuanians, was too confrontational for the Estonians. But rather than haggling, all sides quickly agreed to a watered-down version.
The draft of the Army resolution, for example, said: ``Peaceful civil action demanding its [the Army's] withdrawal are completely legitimate.'' But in its final form, the resolution dropped any references to protests, stressing instead that the Baltics don't ``regard each and every Soviet military officer or his family as personal enemies of our nations.''
There were also differences of opinion that had to be ironed out even before the joint session began. The Estonians gave serious consideration to not attending the gathering, underscoring their general dissatisfaction that the Lithuanians may be pushing things too quickly. Lithuania, for example, has already decided to introduce its own passports and currency.
``It's amazing that we accomplished so much in such a short period,'' said Mart Laar, an Estonian parliament member. ``In the beginning, we were far apart, but the work of the joint session showed we can act together.''
``We all have different temperaments,'' Mr. Laar added, ``But the differences between us are basically in the choice of words. That is why the decision to form the inter-parliamentary working group is important. We need to coordinate our actions more.''
Although the Baltics see unity as one key to regaining their sovereignty, recognition from the West is another main element. In adopting an appeal to foreign governments, the Baltics tried to counteract what they perceive as the West's mistaken infatuation with Gorbachev. Many deputies said they are embittered by the West's demand that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, while remaining silent on the Baltic question.
``Has the cold war come to an end?'' Mr. Landsbergis asked during his keynote address. ``The war is still going on in Lithuania, conducted by the Army from the East [the Soviet Union].''
Landsbergis will present the Baltic republics' case in Washington on Dec. 10, when he meets with President Bush.
The Baltic move toward unity is sure to increase concern among ethnic Russians living in the region that they will be left disenfranchised. Before the joint session began, 200 mostly ethnic Russian demonstrators gathered outside the Lithuanian parliament. They shouted slogans and carried signs calling on the Baltics to remain part of the Soviet Union. They were quickly drowned out by 400 pro-independence demonstrators waving Lithuanian yellow, red, and green flags and singing patriotic hymns.
``There's a feeling of hostility now when you go into a shop and speak Russian in Vilnius,'' said Anatoly Petrov, a factory worker and an ethnic Russian. ``We are people, too, and we would like a guarantee of justice.''
When the leaders of the three parliaments arrived in black limousines, the pro-independence crowd broke into a chant, ``Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.'' Soon afterward, the pro-center demonstrators left the area.
Preventing nationalism from growing out of control is an issue that must be addressed, said Anatolijs Gorbunovs, the president of Latvia.
``We don't want Latvia only for Latvians,'' Mr. Gorbunovs said. ``We want to preserve contacts and relations with other nationalities.''
Nevertheless, a resolution approved at the joint session on guaranteeing ethnic equality did not go far enough to suit many ethnic Russian deputies, prompting the walkout of about 18 Latvian and Estonian deputies.
``We have been deprived of the right to express our opinion,'' said Estonian deputy Vladimir Malkovsky. ``This joint session is a political provocation directed against stability.''
There is little doubt that the results of the Baltic gathering will draw some response from the center. The leaders of the three republics said they were prepared for the worst.
``Despite all the dangers, we will continue our drive for freedom,'' Ruutel said. ``We have nowhere else to go.''